Insights from Leonardo da Vinci’s Highly Creative Mind — The Antithesis of Productivity
Musings on the Imagined Autobiography of Leonardo da Vinci — “I, Leonardo da Vinci” by Ralph Steadman (1983)
This story was originally published in French in 2016. Translated from French to English by Illanga Itoua.
Leonardo da Vinci lived for sixty-seven years, producing approximately fifteen pieces of artwork. Raphaël lived for thirty-seven years, and left behind around eighty. In his eighty-eight years, Michelangelo produced forty sculptures, a dozen paintings (including his work inside the Sistine Chapel), and a dozen architectural works.
Why was da Vinci, a man considered to be the authentic genius of the Renaissance, so relatively unproductive?
This essay is no art history thesis: I wish, rather, to discuss Ralph Steadman’s speculative book on this most influential of artists and thinkers.
A British illustrator born in 1936, Steadman was so fascinated with the creative and scientific genius of Leonardo da Vinci, he decided to follow in his footsteps; he lived where Leonardo had lived; he redrew his aforementioned inventions. And finally, he wrote and illustrated this imagined autobiography.
‘’I became Leonardo. I didn’t have to read Kenneth Clark.
I knew; I had the sense of it. So I had a go.’’
I don’t know whether Steadman did in some small way become Leonardo da Vinci, but his book provides a fascinating insight into a creative mind on an endless quest, where the journeying for artistic truth and expression held far greater meaning than public recognition or acclaim.
In these pages, Leonardo da Vinci speaks as the narrator, in the first person. He tells the tale of his life, from his birth until his final hours, introducing his successive benefactors in Florence, Milan, Rome and Paris. This illustrated story of a 15th century genius seen through the eyes of a contemporary author with a flamboyant style is exhilarating.
Throughout his life, he enjoyed friendships with some of the greatest minds of his generation — the mathematician Luca Pacioli, author of a treatise on Divine Proportions, the architect Bramante, Nicolas Machiavelli (with whom he kept a correspondence), and his rival Michelangelo, twenty years his junior.
Some of his creations were destroyed or disappeared, particularly during the catastrophic dictatorship of Savonarola in Florence. Many were never finished, or never actually undertaken in full.
Throughout the book, Steadman embarks upon a journey into the mind of a man constantly wondering about the world, curious about everything, experimenting, analyzing the rules of nature in his own environment. Such a man only accepts as true what he himself has experienced. He’s gifted in all things — singing, drawing, mathematics, engineering, and passionate about every facet of life.
Therefore, at any moment in the book, the narrative may switch to a mathematical consideration or the observation of a natural phenomenon. Situations, some anecdotal, arise one after another, compelling the narrator to follow a regular practice of self-admonishment: “But I digress…”, he berates himself.
Ralph Steadman creates a surreal universe. At times magical (when Leonardo’s lost to mathematical abstractions), at times nightmarish, when he ponders the failings of his fellow humans. His style is absolutely unique and alternates between impeccable, fully rendered works of art to illustrations, and mere sketches with scrawls in the margins.
It is this mix of finished and unfinished, of work in progress that draws us into the effervescence of creation itself — that invites one to truly experience an organic, ever evolving work. A work to which one can never truly apply a final brushstroke. For the process, here, is of far greater import than the outcome.
The very kaleidoscope of compositions and techniques used by Steadman (from ink to collage, with a dash of photo manipulation) is a fitting echo of the workings of Leonardo’s mind. He who incessantly draws inspiration from every single thing he lays his eyes upon.
We learn from the back cover that the author had originally embarked upon a career in aviation that taught him the basics of draughtsmanship, an aptitude displayed here in the drawings of Leonardo’s inventions: a catapult for cats, a dramatic mechanical rendition of the solar system, a water-powered alarm, and, of course, his air-bound creations.
In character and appearance, his imagined Leonardo is exceedingly endearing: slim, awkward, extremely hairy, with utterly expressive, questioning eyes. Observing every detail, down to his toes.
In contrast, the rest of the world is depicted as a distorted set of cringing faces, ugly mugs, self-absorbed and disfigured caricatures. The book opens with a quote from Freud that echoes this the dark setting:
“[Leonardo da Vinci is] like a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while the others were all still asleep.” Sigmund Freud
Page after page, we follow Leonardo and his financial problems, his relationship with his followers, the commissions he secures, the ones he carries out or, more often than not, the ones he never starts or finishes.
The first time we see him quit is influenced by an intimate and ungraspable motive. One which dictates that only the creator can decide if and when a work is finally completed.
Ralph Steadman imagines Leonardo uttering the following words on the L’Adoration des mages commissioned by the San Donato monastery:
“The point I reached was full with wondrous possibilities and there it stayed much to the great dismay of my providers.”
I find it oh so beautiful, this “one moment, filled with wondrous possibilities”, and how he leaves us with only a partial explanation. It isn’t Leonardo’s fault “something stopped him from finishing”. After all, what’s the point of creating if not because an inner force urges one to do so? And if that elusive something no longer provides inspiration towards finalizing an artistic project, why should one attempt to force it to?
This isn’t, of course, the kind of admission to endear an artist to sponsors or clients. For example, The Brotherhood of the Immaculate Conception commissioned an altar. But Leonardo, bored to death by the endless list of their expectations, requests and restrictions, decides to execute the commission as he pleases. This is the end result:
“The list of their demands was long and futile and written too in Latin — a language I did not quite come to master. I determined to ignore their earnest requests and set about my own way. I gave instead of my best and produced a scene which pleased me much but which I could not finish in the appointed time; neither would the fraternity pay me as they ought and so a dispute arose which neither party found a way to settle for nigh on twenty-three years.”
(Leonardo da Vinci ends up painting a second, much more orthodox painting: these are the two renderings of the Virgin of the Rocks.)
The Madonna Lisa’s husband is another unlucky patron. Steadman’s Leonardo agrees to paint this particular portrait because the model is so exquisitely beautiful. Little by little, he becomes amazed at what he succeeds in capturing with his brush.
“But my household assured me that the face I had painted was indeed full of beauty and I must agree for I saw it with my own eyes and what I saw before me was a vision and I could no longer let it go and I dallied with the painting many years for fear the husband of this woman should think that it was finished and wrest it from me. I made excuses and found other work to do.”
Indeed, as long as the work remains unfinished, it belongs exclusively to the artist, who can sit in endless contemplation, enamoured (maybe obsessed) with a creation far greater than himself.
What makes a painting a work of art? In his life, Da Vinci perhaps encapsulated in a single sentence what he requires from a work of art when he reflects upon one of his last pieces, John the Baptist, that leaves him dissatisfied (the arm, he wondered, how can I show that this arm doesn’t belong to a mere mortal, but that it hails from God?).
“(…) for if you have the means to make an image, better that you make it something you can live with. Otherwise you die each time it is uncovered and all you see is habit, all your mannerisms, all the things that you yourself despise.”
Procrastination, arbitrary decision-making, disrespect for authority — all these things can be levelled at da Vinci with complete justification. For he was passionate about fundamental questions (how do birds fly? why don’t water circles break when they meet/cross? where do these rainbow air bubbles in a water glass come from? how can an artist avoid revealing to much of himself in his work, in each of the models he paints?), he’s simply incapable of conforming to the external constraint of a commission he dislikes, or worse, of a commission that bores him to death.
And yet he waited his entire life for the opportunity to prove himself. He was unlucky with the giant bronze horse he intended to cast for the Sforza but which was left in clay, destroyed after the assault given by French soldiers; or with the great battle of Anghiari.
He was to paint the latter on the wall of the Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundred) du Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. As it transpired, Michelangelo had been commissioned to paint the battle of Cascina on the opposite wall. Both works remain unfinished, and this episode, as narrated by Ralph Steadman, has become part of the legend surrounding the rivalry between the two artists. As Leonardo had started a few months before, Michelangelo went into a frenzy to demonstrate his stylistic as well as technical superiority. But the moment da Vinci is about to lay his brush onto the wall to start painting:
“At the moment of putting the brush upon the wall the skies darkened and the bell started to toll. The cartoon came loose that I would transfer to the wall and water poured down. The weather worsened still more and a very great rain came until nightfall and it was dark as night.
The air was filled with a dampness that affected my paint so much that it began to slide down all in ruin. ( …)
The fear that attacks me when I commence a task had seized me once again and I was forced to abandon everything that I had done. Michelangelo blamed me for the ill luck that dogged our work believing that I was beset with devils or the like who would affect all those about me — but he was then summoned to Rome to serve the new Pope whom no one could refuse.”
And yet, when the subject, the place or the moment are favourable, Steadman reveals a Leonardo da Vinci able to confront and defy any doubt and all adversity. This ability is most detailed in the episode recalling the making of The Last Supper. It’s the moment that best allows Steadman to fully immerse himself in the mind of Leonardo da Vinci at the very moment when painting begins, and to follow him step by step — defining and shaping the subject, building up the excitement, making composition choices, painting the first brushstroke.
For once, the task seems congruent with what Leonardo is able and willing to do: decorate the back wall of the Bramante designed refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie. He is so exalted by this project that he’s nearly too anxious to start. It’s much worse than writer’s block — a white-wall painting block!
“My painting would be so real as to be a part of the room itself. An extension so convincing as to make the monks experience each evening that most extraordinary sensation of eating in the very presence of their Lord. (…)
The task I set myself was filled with such challenge that I feared the very touching of the wall. At times I was overcome with desperate fear and dared not mar the whiteness there before me.”
Later in the book, we shadow Leonardo in the turmoil of his expectation, vision and near-paralyzing stringency:
“I must depict this scene as though I were present in the room and the retina of my eyes had held for a brief moment all that was before it as though frozen in time. (…) The image in my mind, the desperate hope of achieving something else to the vision I would wish to see there, made it impossible to begin for fear that I should fail.”
Where to start? What should be the first stroke the artist paints on a work of such magnitude? This question is mysterious and fascinating for Ralph Steadman and the reader alike. But it’s harrowingly distressful for the narrator.
“The first mark, the decision, why it should be in one particular place, will determine everything that comes after. And if it should be wrong? Can it be wrong, or is it all preordained? My reason told me not but my insecurity that some power greater than me willed its course, if only to reassure myself that the very subject would inspire me.”
When he finally does make a start, he begins in front of a bevy of nosy onlookers watching him as they would a juggler, waiting for his skittle to drop.
“I listened to all comments from those who passed before my wall and pondered how the painter ought to be desirous of hearing every man’s opinion as to the progress of his work.
Surely when a man is painting a picture he ought not to refuse to listen for we know very well that though a man may not be a painter he may have a true conception of the form of another man, and can judge aright whether he is hump-backed or has one shoulder high or low, or whether he has a large mouth or nose or other defects.
Since then we recognise that men are able to form a true judgment as to the works of nature, how much the more does it behove us to admit that they are able to judge our faults.”
While his students watch him prepare his palette, he lets his mind wander, hoping that the sheer uniqueness of this particular piece, one before which he finds himself nearly impotent, would give them the longing for exceptional things.
“My students watched intently and I knew this they all would learn (…) The painting was another matter and I could only proceed and hope that what they saw would help them to aspire beyond the usual, for many things lie dormant within the minds of men and only await the signal from outside. But I digress.”
Leonardo da Vinci does complete The Last Supper — it is one of the most famous pieces in art history. But even in his lifetime, it suffered flood damage and had to be restored (the church was built on a swamp). Yet another source of despondency for a character that found it so hard to bring both his ideas to fruition and work to completion.
“I was without a mind for painting and its like at all. All I had done before had come to nought and even the Last Supper had suffered damage from some flood upon the marshland where the monastery stood for which my painting method had no sound resistance. I was humiliated. It seemed it was my fate to work as though my efforts were but sand upon a shore.”
In fact, some of the book’s most beautiful illustrations are devoted to intrinsically fugacious inventions: automatons to amuse the court, devices for theatre, chimeras.
Yes, simultaneously, throughout his entire life, Leonardo da Vinci stockpiled notes. He dissects corpses, and takes notes. He analyses bird flight, and takes notes. He studies science and painting, and takes notes. But what is one to do, then, with all these notes, the knowledge within, an entire life’s work?
“I had a mind one day to publish all I had discovered throughout my life. The problem was not that I had kept all things but so much had accumulated through the years and sometimes I have written things more than once to ensure that nothing ever will be overlooked.
What complex task it was to put all things in order. In this I felt alone.”
The very last pages repeat this litany:
“My papers, I must file my papers…”
These words are accompanied by a poignant illustration. We can see Leonardo kneeling over the thousands of sheets he annotated, clutching them with both hands. His last, unfinished work. His face is drawn four times, his head swivelling. Turning towards his stack, his profile stares intensely at the sheets he’s gripping. Turning towards us, his eyes bore into ours.
Does he hope that we can take over this overflowing, abundant knowledge — that we can help him file them across the centuries? Is Steadman’s book his own contribution to an invidious task, a desire to give a unified view of the tumultuous life of Leonardo da Vinci, whilst preserving its mysterious allure and intricacy?
STEADMAN Ralph, I, Leonardo da Vinci. 1983
All illustrations rights reserved © Ralph Steadman
Translated from French to English by Illanga Itoua